Utah group seeking state takeover adds D.C. lobbying muscle

By Phil Taylor | 03/10/2015 07:19 AM EDT

A Utah-based nonprofit that advocates for states to take over federal lands is boosting its lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., where GOP lawmakers are proposing budget measures to convey lands to Western states.

Updated 10:06 a.m. EDT, March 11, 2015.

A Utah-based nonprofit that advocates for states to take over federal lands is boosting its lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., where GOP lawmakers are proposing budget measures to convey lands to Western states.

The American Lands Council, led by Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory (R), has asked its lobbyist, Michael Swenson, to educate congressional lawmakers on the benefits of relinquishing federal lands to the states. Swenson said he expects federal legislation to be introduced by fall.


ALC paid Swenson $20,000 in the final months of 2014 to lobby state governments and begin reaching out to federal lawmakers, the lobbyist said. He has received about $15,000 so far this year, he said.

ALC paid Swenson about $30,000 in the first half of 2013 to lobby at the state level, but he said he was out of a contract from summer 2013 to last September.

Swenson, who runs Salt Lake City-based Swenson Strategies, is prodding legislators in both the U.S. House and Senate to support "transferring federally managed land to states," according to his most recent federal disclosure. The filing reports $150,000 in lobbying revenue, but Swenson said that number was a mistake.

While Utah is contemplating litigation to force the United States to relinquish lands, Congress will play an important role, Swenson said.

"We believe this will be a political solution ultimately resolved by Congress," he said.

Swenson is also employed by the Western Grouse Coalition, a Utah-based nonprofit that has lobbied successfully for appropriators in Congress to impose a delay on Endangered Species Act protections for the sage grouse. He also leads the Utah Shared Access Alliance, a motorized recreation advocacy group that backs Utah’s bid to take over federal lands.

Founded in 2012, Ivory’s American Lands Council is spearheading a national campaign to force the federal government to transfer lands it claims are rightfully owed to Western states. According to its mission, state stewardship is the only solution "to ensure better access, better health, AND better productivity" of those lands.

Ivory authored legislation signed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in March 2012 that demands that the federal government by Dec. 31, 2014, relinquish about 30 million acres of mostly Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands to the Beehive State. Backers of the law say Congress made a promise in Utah’s 1894 Enabling Act to dispose U.S. lands to Utah but reneged in 1976 by passing a nationwide law to retain the bulk of the nation’s remaining 600 million acres — mostly in the West.

But the deadline for the land transfer has come and gone, and Utah does not seem in a hurry to take its claims to federal court. Legal experts say such a lawsuit would be highly unlikely to succeed.

ALC is now boosting its efforts on Capitol Hill.

"We’ve been fielding calls and visiting with members, and the message is resonating," Ivory said yesterday. "More and more people say they want better access, health and productivity."

Ivory told Fox 13 in Utah last month that members of Congress have also expressed interest in holding hearings on the issue.

Ivory said Utah is still exploring its legal options — it put out a request for proposals for legal counsel — but its other paths are education, negotiation and legislation.

So far, ALC’s federal lobbying effort appears to be paying off.

The House Natural Resources Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), recently sent a briefing to the Budget Committee recommending that the federal government convey lands "without strings" to state, local and tribal governments. It urged the Budget Committee to "eliminate barriers" for those conveyances in its budget resolution and build in $50 million to offset potential losses to the U.S. Treasury.

"Current budget practices frequently create insurmountable barriers to achieving the goal of reducing the federal estate by conveying federal land to local, state, and tribal governments," said the Natural Resources briefing, which was obtained by E&E Daily.

It warned that federal lands create a "burden" for surrounding states and communities and that they "isolate communities, limit growth and adversely impact private property rights."

Committee spokesman Parish Braden said Bishop has been proposing federal land conveyances since long before ALC’s founding.

"Improving federal land management and related processes for land conveyances aren’t new issues for Mr. Bishop,” he said. “They are long-held priorities that he continues to pursue."

ALC’s lobbying expenditures appear to represent a growing portion of its budget. In 2013, it generated $228,000 in revenue, about 70 percent of which came from membership dues, according to its most recent 990 disclosure to the Internal Revenue Service. Ivory, its president, was paid a $95,000 salary.

At least 16 Utah counties have sponsored ALC as "silver" level members, which cost at least $5,000, according to the ALC website. Iron County is a "gold" level member, having spent at least $25,000. Across the West in 2014, 47 counties spent a combined $219,000 of taxpayer money to join ALC, according to the Center for Western Priorities, which opposes ALC’s land transfer effort.

ALC’s website lists member counties in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and Washington state.

It seems unlikely that land-transfer proponents will be able to convince a sufficient number of non-Western members of Congress to vote to relinquish federal lands — which their constituents own — to other states. But the idea has found traction with the Republican Party.

The Republican National Committee in January 2014 passed a resolution supporting states "taking back" federal lands. House Republicans have proposed federal land sales to control the federal deficit. And state lawmakers in a handful of Western states have either passed or considered bills to study or demand the transfer of federal lands.

The effort is strongly opposed by conservation groups, sportsmen and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who last December called Utah’s talk of taking over federal lands a "waste of time" that hinders constructive dialogue between Utah and land management agencies.

A white paper released in January from scholars at the University of Utah found that Utah’s proposed takeover of federal lands would require a significant shift toward commodity development and higher fees to access lands, and would result in less public input into how they are managed.

Matt Lee-Ashley, director of public lands with the liberal Center for American Progress and a former Obama Interior official, said ALC’s land transfer strategy seems to have shifted from state litigation to federal legislation, the latter of which he characterized as a "hail Mary" pass.

"I think it faces a snowball’s chance in hell of passing Congress," he said. "The fact is they’re spending taxpayer money to lobby Congress to take an action that has been shown to be economically damaging, damaging to taxpayers and damaging to the Utah economy. It’s nothing short of a boondoggle."

But ALC’s lobbying has paid some dividends, as evidenced by the Natural Resources Committee’s proposal for the Budget Committee to support unfettered land conveyances, Ashley said.

"It looks like the lobbying efforts of the American Lands Council are paying off," he said.

A report last week by the free-market group Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., did not take a position on whether federal lands should be transferred to states. But it argued that the United States should look to state trust lands for ideas on how to improve management of federal lands (Greenwire, March 6).